For several years now, my humanities education has been running in parallel with my training as a vocalist in Carnatic Music, a style of music from South India. Each December I travel to Chennai to attend the famous “music season,” a festival for Carnatic Music that sees hundreds of performances and lectures throughout the city for nearly a month. I often return to Chennai in the less chaotic summer months, when I have more time and patience to learn from my guru Sri P.S. Narayanaswamy, whom we affectionately call PSN Mama. The transition from finishing my last paper of the semester to learning the first composition of the summer is always something of a leap.
Music seems to demand of me a different kind of learning than what I’m used to at university. Yet when I try to speak on the specific method of my guru, at first I don’t have anything all that interesting to say. Like most teachers of Carnatic Music, PSN Mama teaches me through compositions: he sings the composition line by line, and I sing each line back to him until he is convinced I’ve understood its structure. For fifteen years we have known each other more through our singing voices than our conversations, most of which are usually about when to meet next, or whether I want coffee before we begin.